By Taylor Tench, Policy Analyst
Wild rhinos have it rough just about everywhere they are found. In Africa, rhino poaching has been at crisis levels for more than a decade with more than 9,200 rhinos poached since 2006. From 2012 to 2017 the continental white rhino population declined by 15 percent to approximately 18,000 rhinos. The majority of these losses occurred in South Africa where, during this five-year period, Kruger National Park lost more than half of its white rhino population. Poaching was the main driver of these losses, though a prolonged drought exacerbated the impacts from poaching and caused additional rhino mortalities in Kruger and in other affected areas of Southern Africa. While poaching rates dipped slightly in South Africa last year, this is in part because there are simply less rhinos available to poach. Meanwhile, black rhinos remain Critically Endangered and survive at a fraction of their historic abundance with a total estimated population of approximately 5,500.
Asian rhino species are also poached to supply the illegal trade in rhino horn, though habitat loss and fragmentation are the primary threats to many Asian rhino populations. Sumatran rhinos may now number as few as 30 across their remaining highly fragmented forest habitat on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra. The majority of the approximately 3,500 greater one-horned rhinos are found in only two populations in India (Kaziranga National Park) and Nepal (Royal Chitwan National Park), while all 65 Javan rhinos are found entirely within Indonesia’s Ujon Kulong National Park.
Unrelenting demand for rhino horn is sustaining the rhino poaching onslaught and fueling illegal trade. From April 2006 to August 2019, EIA has recorded 671 rhino horn seizures globally involving approximately 6,673 kg of rhino horn (check out our interactive map of rhino horn seizures). Since the last World Rhino Day, nearly 1,600 kg of rhino horn have been seized around the world in 73 separate seizure incidences, equivalent to one rhino horn seizure every five days. The seizure data indicates that most of the rhino horn in trade is destined for China and Vietnam, which are linked to 28.9 percent and 22.3 percent of all seizures, respectively. Because this data is based on publicly-available information, it likely represents only a fraction of the amount of illegally traded rhino horn.
Enforcement Must Improve
Despite the many pledges made by rhino range, transit, and consumer countries to disrupt and dismantle the organized criminal networks controlling the illegal trade in rhino horn, enforcement on a global scale is still lacking. By “enforcement” we mean moving beyond isolated rhino horn seizures and instead employing intelligence-led enforcement to conduct comprehensive investigations into criminal syndicates, swiftly prosecuting suspects, and securing successful convictions with appropriate penalties. Enforcement needs to be conducted with a whole-of-government approach involving the communication and cooperation of all relevant agencies and, when necessary, with other governments. When authorities do make rhino horn seizures, samples should be shared with the authorities in South Africa for DNA analysis using the RhODIS database to identify the source of the horn and aid in prosecutions.
With a few exceptions, we’ve yet to see this approach widely implemented. For instance, Vietnam has been increasingly implicated in the illegal rhino horn trade as well as the trafficking in other endangered wildlife products like elephant ivory, pangolin scales, and tiger parts and derivatives. After two years of delays, Vietnam did implement a revised penal code in January 2018 that strengthened criminal penalties for trade in rhino horn and elephant ivory, however despite the evidence of organized criminal elements driving the illegal wildlife trade in Vietnam, including evidence uncovered by EIA (UK), Vietnam has so far failed to make effective use of this new legal framework to address its role in the trafficking of endangered wildlife. Check out EIA’s report Running out of Time to learn more about Vietnam’s central role in the trafficking of endangered species.
Even when progress is made on enforcement, it often feels as if we’re taking one step forward and two steps backward. For instance, just this past week reports surfaced in South Africa that government officials had decided to shutter the Skukuza Regional Court. Skukuza was set up inside Kruger National Park in 2017 specifically to address cases of rhino poaching and illegal trade in rhino horn – and it was remarkably successful at achieving this goal. Thanks to the efforts of the dedicated prosecutors and justice officials who take on rhino cases at Skukuza, the court has achieved a near-perfect conviction rate. This is especially impressive considering that the South African judicial system is often a quagmire where high-profile cases languish for years without any progress. Difficulties in securing successful convictions is not limited to South Africa: Zimbabwe and Namibia, for example, are experiencing their own challenges with overcoming delays in their courts for rhino-related cases. Fortunately in the Skukuza situation, on Friday the South African Department of Justice announced a temporary stay on the closure of Skukuza Regional Court to investigate the matter further. It will take continued pressure on the Department of Justice to turn this temporary stay into a final decision against the closure of the court. You can add your voice to those opposed to the closure Skukuza Regional Court by signing this petition.
Legal Trade in Rhino Horn is Not the Answer
Further hampering enforcement efforts is the failure by the world’s governments to unite against trade in rhino horn and commit to demand reduction. The continued call for legalized rhino horn trade by some African rhino range states ignores past lessons learned and goes against the position held by the rest of the world, including other African and Asian rhino range states, that trade in rhino horn would increase demand and lead to increased poaching.
Moreover, while most countries have prohibited domestic trade in rhino horn, South Africa has a legal domestic rhino horn market. Parallel legal markets for wildlife products like rhino horn and elephant ivory stimulate demand, provide cover for illegal trade, present laundering opportunities, and complicate enforcement. Indeed, South Africa’s domestic rhino horn market has been shown to be contributing to illegal trade.
China has achieved some enforcement success in recent years, yet this progress is undercut by China’s lobbying at international forums like CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) to try and avoid scrutiny for its role in the illegal rhino horn trade. Moreover, EIA remains seriously concerned that despite government officials declaring the postponement of a policy announced last year to allow rhino horn use from farmed rhinos for medicinal purposes, it appears the policy has never been officially repealed and there is a risk it could be implemented at any time.
Despite the immense challenges facing rhinos today, there is still reason to be hopeful for the future of these species. Just weeks ago, Mozambique achieved two landmark convictions for rhino poaching and illegal rhino horn trafficking. Two Mozambican nationals were sentenced to 15 and 17 years in prison, respectively, for killing two rhinos in Limpopo National Park, marking the first conviction for rhino poaching in Mozambique since 2008. On August 26th a Chinese national was sentenced to 15 years in prison for attempting to smuggle 4.2 kg of rhino horn to Hong Kong in April of last year – the first time a foreign citizen has been convicted of a wildlife crime in Mozambique. While Mozambique still has much room for improvement, these are promising first steps.
In February of this year, all Asian rhino range states affirmed their shared position against legal rhino horn trade in the New Delhi Declaration signed at the 2nd Asian Rhino Range Countries Meeting in which they agreed “to call to the attention of all countries that possible opening of international trade in rhino horn and other derivatives will have a severe detrimental impact on rhino populations in Asian rhino range countries.” And just last month, when faced with a proposal to allow commercial trade in rhino horn the 18th Conference of the Parties to CITES voted to reject this proposal and uphold the international trade ban.
CITES Parties also adopted a critical decision calling for the closure of rhino horn markets that contribute to poaching or illegal trade, and directed countries most affected by the illegal trade in rhino horn (China, Mozambique, Myanmar, Namibia, South Africa, and Vietnam) to report back on their enforcement actions, including investigations aimed at organized criminal networks.
Rhino populations throughout Africa and Asia continue to suffer from rampant poaching and illegal trade in their horn. In order to stop the killing, the world’s governments must fully commit to eliminating all trade in rhino horn, commit to demand reduction efforts that measure success through behavior change, and work together to use all the tools at their disposal to investigate and dismantle the organized criminal elements driving rhino poaching and the illegal trade in rhino horn.